Savage’s subtitle is The Violence of Forgetting, letter and words separated from their neighbours by full stops and slashes. Australian Dance Theatre adds even more emphasis with attention-grabbing capitals. T.H.E./V.I.O.L.E.N.C.E./O.F./F.O.R.G.E.T.T.I.N.G.
Usually one ignores typography. Fiddling around with normal usage can look at worst pretentious and at best irrelevant. Here, though, you can practically hear howls of rage. Energy, anger and urgency jump off the page. Every letter hits you like a stab.
It’s a promise not exactly fulfilled in Daniel Riley’s first full-length work for ADT since he started as artistic director at the beginning of the year.
Savage is more restless than violent, unless you count repeated tossing and slamming of chairs as violence. The tendrils of haze that seep through the auditorium before the work begins are apposite: despite its physical intensity Savage is made of allusions and undercurrents.
Intimations of incarceration, alienation, climate change and personal suffering run through the piece. The implicit theme is that you ignore them at your peril but Savage doesn’t preach. It suggests.
That means being open to a range of possibilities. The final arresting image, for instance, could be read as one of perseverance and hope but equally as one of obstruction and futility, particularly given what’s gone before. Dance is like that. Different responses can co-exist.
Riley, who worked with dramaturg Kate Champion on the piece, has Savage start before it begins.
Composer James Howard’s electronic score is well underway as people take their seats. ADT dancer Jada Narkle comes onstage to sit, look, wander and make a few notes. It’s a low-key, enigmatic introduction to the 60-minute piece.
Rows of fluorescent lights offer a sickly light (Matthew Adey’s design) that illuminates a line of white plastic outdoor chairs at the front and a large chain-link fence covered with a metallic tarp at the back (set by Dean Cross). The bleak, unpolished look speaks of prisons and poverty. Howard’s industrial soundscape is similarly forbidding with its heavy beat, beeps, whispers, buzzes, white noise and drones.
Sebastian Geilings enters via the auditorium, pulls up a chair for Narkle to sit on and the dance proper begins as a second chain-link fence is pushed across the stage, sweeping chairs before it.
The chair motif returns again and again and you can read into that what you will: the overuse of plastic, suburban ugliness, a society that discards things and people indiscriminately, something you can chuck to work off pent-up anger. One thing is certain. A lot of metaphorical heavy lifting is asked of stacked, banged and thrown seating.
Riley intersperses these flurries of business with deliberately rough-hewn solos, small group interactions and several brief sections for the full ensemble, augmented for Savage by Riley and nine somewhat underused students from the Adelaide College of the Arts.
A combative duo becomes an entangled trio for Geilings, Darci O’Rourke and Zachary Lopez. Brianna Kell appears as a forbidding authority figure while Zoe Wozniak, dressed in the show’s only colourful outfit, has the air of a cool outsider occasionally taking a look at things from a high vantage point.
The fragmentary, non-specific approach for the most part encourages a cerebral response rather than an emotional one but there are two exceptions.
The first is the touching intimation of a therapy session where anguish and comfort meet. The other is a moment for Riley, a Wiradjuri man, when handed a megaphone.
He doesn’t use it but it’s impossible not to think of the discussion surrounding the Indigenous Voice to Parliament. And perhaps it’s a signal to Riley’s new audience that it’s safe with him. He knows where he’s from but he will not harangue. He will show and suggest. He will include.
Savage runs in Canberra from September 29-30.
A version of this review appeared in The Australian on September 26.